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OpenSTEM Labs case study from Kings College London

When King’s College London was looking for a way to deliver practical skills training to its Psychology students, in a way that could be accessed both on and off campus, The Open University’s (OU) OpenSTEM Lab was an obvious choice for senior lecturer, Dr Eleanor Dommett.

An expert in blended learning and digital literacy, Eleanor is an advocate for digital transformation in higher education. Faced with a number of challenges relating to the delivery of practical tutorials, Eleanor was keen to unlock the benefits of OpenSTEM Labs.
 

The challenges in teaching practical skills

Whilst rodents are commonly used in research within psychology and biomedical sciences making understanding this type of research important, stringent ethical and legal governance in UK means teaching about animal experimentation rarely uses animals and so the learning outcomes must be delivered through other means.

Practical laboratory sessions are also increasingly challenging to deliver due to larger cohort sizes and the availability of staff, space and resources. As a result, universities are having to find alternatives to experiments traditional laboratory experiments.
 

Introducing OpenSTEM Labs from The Open University

The OU’s OpenSTEM Labs represents one such alternative, thanks to their virtual animal behaviour suite.

This interactive learning lab allows students to look after, and conduct experiments with, virtual rats, observing realistic animal behaviour in a simulated environment.

It is just one of many virtual labs that higher education institutions can access via the OU.

Students need to train their rats, feed them and collect data, just like in a live animal trial. But, unlike a live trial, the online animal behaviour lab is more accessible, scalable and cost-effective.

If we tried to do this in real life, students would have to come in every day for two weeks to achieve the same ends. We don’t have the facilities to do that. You couldn’t make a reasonable cost-benefit for the learning. With an OpenSTEM Lab, we can complete the whole experiment in one 90-minute session. It is ideal.

Dr Eleanor Dommett, Kings College London

Quick pivot and long-term transformation

Whilst blended learning has been on the agenda for the Higher Education sector for decades, digital transformation has come rapidly to the fore in recent months due to coronavirus.

Dr Dommett explains: “The sector needs the flexibility now and going forward. The COVID situation means we’re moving learning online for the next year. But longer term, over the next five years, the economic impact on Higher Education means there will be a sector move towards blended learning.”

Many universities have decided to suspend face-to-face teaching for the coming year. This has resulted in a race to create effective online learning for the September 2020 intake. Utilising existing online resources like OpenSTEM Labs represent a quick-win for pivoting degree programmes.

Being infinitely scalable and remotely accessible, it also provides a viable longer-term option for universities faced with the logistical challenges of space to accommodate growing student numbers.
 

Cost effective and off-the-shelf

One of the major benefits of OpenSTEM Labs is that it provides universities with a cost-effective solution that is available off-the-shelf and ready to use.

Few universities have the capacity or budget to produce a bespoke learning technology like OpenSTEM Labs themselves, nor would it be cost-effective to do so.

As the OU are international leaders in online distance learning, other institutions can benefit from their investment in effective online resources, at a fraction of the cost of developing it themselves.
 

Adapts to all stages of the student journey

Whilst Dr Dommett currently uses the labs to teach first year undergraduates, some of whom have been on campus until the recent pandemic, the platform has uses at all stages of the student journey and can be accessed remotely just as easily. At undergraduate level, tutors can build a practical session around specific experiments. At postgraduate level, students can use the platform for independent study and research.

Open STEM Labs can even be used as a ‘keep warm’ activity for students who have accepted a place at university. The cost of losing a single UK student between acceptance and registration is up to £27,000 over a three-year course. Integrating an OpenSTEM Labs practical over the summer can keep a potential student engaged and enthused about their upcoming learning.
 

Enhancing student choice and experience

Beyond the benefit to the institutions themselves, blended learning provides a range of benefits to individual learners, including accessibility and employability.

Making training more accessible, by allowing students to complete assignments at a time and place convenient to them, can be a huge benefit to cost- and time-conscious students.

Dr Dommett said: “In London especially, some students cannot afford to travel in for on-site learning. They might have to choose between travel or paying their bills. Being more flexible and giving them the option to learn online is very valuable”.

Incorporating online learning into higher education also equips students with more skills for employment and the realities of working life. Dr Dommett explains:

Blended learning is an essential part of the digital capability agenda. It does students a disservice if we’re not teaching them online. The skills students learn through OpenSTEM Labs are more akin to the skills they’ll use in their career. They’re going to have to be lifelong learners and much of that learning will be online. So this sets them up for the reality of their future.

Dr Eleanor Dommett, Kings College London

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